At first "Remembrance" sounds like your typical elegy: cold and dead in that dreary grave. But when the speaker starts getting into the whole memory bit and her anxieties about forgetting to love, we suddenly feel as if we're hearing a different perspective on death and loss.
In other words, this elegy sounds a bit more contemplative and intellectual than most. It's as if we're in a slightly more cerebral part of the speaker's grieving process that is less about tears and more about the human mind with "Time's all severing wave."
The ending rhetorical questions that we see in the first, second, and eighth stanzas really set the intellectual mood and sound, while the wavy iambic pentameter keeps it all sounding rhythmic. Plus, with all of those metrical deviations, which add to the speaker's lingering mood and thoughts (1-2), we really sense the authenticity behind her emotions and the way she keeps jumping around between sorrow, question, and later consolation. The sound of the meter really brings those emotions to life, especially when the speaker gets to the part where she's feeling stronger and those syllables start sounding shorter and more emphatic: "Then did I check the tears of useless passion."
Likewise, the anaphora we see in lines 17-20 really drives home the speaker's love, which comes second to none. By repeating phrases like "All my life's bliss," the speaker sounds as if she's really driving home her conviction that although she might forget, there's still no doubting her love and faithfulness to the one she lost. Alliteration also plays a key role in accenting her conviction, like the kind we see in lines 21-22, that uses that D sound: "Despair was powerless to destroy." It's as if the speaker sounds like she's determined to keep her despair in check by pummeling it with lots of D's.
All in all, this elegy sounds well balanced between the essentials: meter, rhyme, anaphora, and alliteration. Each device is carefully used in a way that best serves the speaker's tone and mood by creating complementary sounds. So whether we're floating over the mountains or being washed away by the "world's tide," we always have the sound of the words to remind us of where we are and how the speaker's feeling.
"Remembrance" is a loaded word in Brontë's elegy. It means way more than just remembering or forgetting.
Sure we might remember the time we locked our keys in our car or forgot to turn the water off while running a bath, but that's not remembrance. Remembrance is a tad more complicated than all that. It's not as simple as something slipping our minds; it's about remembering and memorializing the dead. Which is tougher than it sounds because sometimes we may want to forget our pain but would never want to forget the love we felt.
Before even getting to the poem, we've got all sorts of ideas running through our minds related to remembrance and what that means to us. We may even feel a bit overwhelmed at times. Sure these may be some heavy thoughts, but Brontë's got it covered.
See, "Remembrance" is deliberately constructed to be a tour de force in the world of memory, time, and the human mind. And as we know, such ambitious projects aren't supposed to be easy, especially when you're working with a title as broad and loaded as "Remembrance." Oh and lots of other poets, including the Romantics like Shelley and Byron, had previously published poems with the same title, which Brontë would have definitely read. So Brontë was probably looking to take a stab at it, too.
We know that Emily Brontë wasn't exactly the simplest gal in the world, so it makes sense that there would be two versions of the same poem with different settings.
Bear with us: the original manuscript of "Remembrance" was entitled "R. Alcona to J. Brenzaida" and was set in Gondal. The story goes that Gondal's heroine, Rosina Alcona, laments to her long-dead beloved emperor, Julius Brenzaida. When Brontë's poems were later published, a number of changes were made and we got what we have here in "Remembrance," so we're going to stick with what we see in this poem rather than delve into the version set in Gondal.
At first we're cold in the earth, feeling that pile of snow over the dead lover's grave. Next we're hovering over mountains in the air, still above the grave but in a different way. Then we're feeling the heat of the sun melt the snow, but again, guess where we are… that's right: even when we're changing with the seasons or the elements, the speaker's focus is still on that tomb that holds her lover's corpse. So the setting is still very grave, only it looks a little different depending on the season and the speaker's mood.
When we get to the parts that sound a bit more cerebral, we notice that we're still focused on that grave but we're also in the more intellectual parts of the speaker's mind. For instance, the sixth stanza is all about the speaker strengthening her existence "without the aid of joy." So we're still thinking about that grave but we're doing so in a way that's set in the speaker's mind. All in all the setting is pretty consistent in terms of the speaker's focus, whether her thoughts are hovering over that grave or sternly denying her impulse to "hasten down to that tomb."
Brontë's speaker in "Remembrance" isn't your typical weepy widow who pines away for the one she lost. She lingers over those emotions in the beginning but then learns to check those "tears of useless passion" and strengthen herself "without the aid of joy." So she's pretty tough, especially for the Victorian era when strong women weren't all too common in poetry, mainly because the published poets of the time were mostly men.
Her first-person voice makes her emotions and later her consolation feel all the more real to us without burdening us with too many personal details that could potentially limit the poem's meaning. She kind of lingers and moves with the elements, too, whether she's hovering over those mountains or moving with the "world's tide." And since her emotions come to us in such a natural and fluid way, due to the poem's wavy iambic pentameter and wavy imagery, we get the feeling that she's being rather honest about it all.
By revealing some of her anxieties and questions over her remembrance and that "Sweet Love of youth," we feel like she's being real without trying to inflate her faithfulness or devotion too much. In fact she even admits that she may forget to "love thee" because life is always bringing new hopes and desires. And even if she did seek that "empty world again" there'd be no point since she'd be looking for something that's not there and she'd only drink "deep of that divinest anguish" again. No sense doing any of that, right?
So the speaker is also highly logical about the pain that most people would be overwhelmed by. We might even feel as if she's growing up right before our eyes, starting with that "Sweet Love of youth" and then evolving into a stronger, more experienced version of herself that's still able to recall that love without wallowing for no reason. Even if we were feeling bad for her in the beginning, we're mighty proud of her by the end as she denies those impulses to throw herself into an early grave.
"Remembrance" is pretty straightforward, but when the speaker starts talking about memory and time, we may need to dig deeper to suss out the meaning. It's manageable, but not a piece of cake.
Charlotte Brontë described her sister Emily Brontë in the following way:
Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. (Source.)
Yeah, we think that about sums it up. In other words, Emily was a bit of a space cadet, but it's cool because she was so in an intellectual way. She always challenged the mind and strove to utilize her imagination as much as possible.
Even in "Remembrance" we see her contemplating the different ways the human mind is affected by time and grief instead of just focusing on the weepy stuff. Between her imaginary land of "Gondal" and her poems that often included rather dark thoughts and passions, Brontë was no stranger to the stranger parts of life. Unfortunately, we don't really know that much about her, being that she died just after her 30th birthday. But if you take a gander at some of her more famous poems, you'll likely see Gondal or some other highly imaginative setting that challenges our minds in all sorts of awesome ways:
You may be counting the syllables in some of the lines in "Remembrance" and wondering how in the world we can call this iambic pentameter. To begin with, we notice that the very first line of the poem starts with a trochee, not to mention the anapest we see in the middle and the amphibrach we see at the end. So how can this be iambic pentameter?
Well stalwart Shmooper, we applaud your attention to syllabic patterns and can answer your question with two words: metrical deviation. Think of it this way: the base meter is like a hotdog while the metrical deviations (other feet) are like the different toppings you can get. At the end of the day, you're still eating a hotdog but sometimes you may opt for relish over onions. The same goes for Brontë's use of iambic pentameter. Sure, it's supposed to follow that daDUM pattern with five stressed syllables in total for each line, but it just doesn't always get in line. So line 3 is like a plain hotdog, boring we know, while line 1 is like a hotdog with the works.
The purpose of throwing in so many variants at certain points seems to be to accent the speaker's emotions, which tend to linger over her lover's grave in line 1. The speaker puts to work those long syllables ("Cold") and those unstressed anapests ("and the deep"). Hear how those words sound as if they take a while to really get out there?
At other times, especially when the speaker is feeling stronger and ready to move forward, we hear perfect moments of iambic pentameter, like line 29: And even yet I dare not let it languish.
Despite all of the variants, "Remembrance" still reads like a typical elegy with the initial lament, followed by the speaker's admiration of her lover, and then the consolation. So although the poem may sound all over the map in terms of syllables, the organization is still by-the-book.
What really keeps everything together, no matter the number of variants we have, is the speaker's use of an alternating rhyme scheme: ABAB (with different rhymes for each stanza). Even if we're distracted by the occasional anapest, we still have some perfect rhymes that highlight some key relationships between words and ideas.
For example, the sixth stanza rhymes "destroy" with "joy" in order to accent the idea that things that are potentially destroyed don't always need fixing with the "aid of joy." Likewise the third stanza rhymes "spring" with "suffering" to highlight the contrast between the seasons and the speaker's remembrance, which has gone on unchanged and sorrowful.
It's not just about forgetting your keys. Memory—in this poem at least—can be a really painful and dangerous thing, especially for the speaker who wishes to "hasten down to that tomb" with her lover. So memory, like those "tears of useless passion," is something that needs to be checked and controlled so that the speaker can go on living, in spite of all her grief.
We hear the "cold in the earth" refrain twice in the poem, so we know for sure that the speaker's lover is definitely "cold in the earth"—as in, dead as a doornail. We see it in the first three stanzas when the speaker is really emphasizing the distance she feels with her former special someone. Her lover is cold (and dead) while she's still kicking in the living world—you don't get much more distant than that. The difference between the two is what's most important in terms of death, loss, and learning to cope with the pain of realizing someone is "cold in the earth" without that beating heart one comes to love so much.
Earth, wind, water, and fire. They make up virtually all parts of our living existence (well, maybe we should add plastic to that list) so it makes sense that the speaker would also use them to help sort through her emotions. As the speaker moves through her grief, we notice the seasons and elements moving with her, so we know she's using them as symbols for the ways we move through life and loss.
Time and memory are connected at the hip in "Remembrance." We really can't have one without the other, especially when dealing with loss and the grieving-turned-healing process. After all, it's not like we can snap our fingers and speed up the whole recovery part. Time is more of a kind of wave pulling us along that we can neither hurry up nor slow down.
"Remembrance" is about love, but not the sexual kind. Our gal's lover is long dead, after all. Also, the Victorian era was best known for keeping all of the sexy stuff in the closet, and "Remembrance" is no different in that regard.